Beard: Casey hiring pushes Pistons in right direction

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Pistons coach Dwane Casey

Las Vegas — So far, new Pistons coach Dwane Casey is checking all the boxes.

In his first few weeks on the job, he’s been diligent in connecting with each player on the roster and building relationships. It started with phone calls and texts and progressed the first few days after he was hired to visits to some of the Pistons doing summer workouts in California.

He grabbed headlines with his mantra for his new Pistons squad: “Our time is now.”

It was a bold statement that declared the desire to win now. Casey doubled down later in the press introductory press conference, in case there was any cloudiness.

“We’re not developing,” he said. “We’re not two or three years away — we want to win right now.”

Casey identified the three highest-paid players — Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson — as the core of the squad but also acknowledged the importance of developing their last three first-round draft picks: Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard.

More: Ellenson shaky, Thomas solid in Summer League opener

It was the first glimpse of Casey’s most renowned asset from the Toronto Raptors’ ascent in recent years — his relationships with his players. It was maybe the biggest criticism of Casey’s predecessor, Stan Van Gundy, who often had demonstrative postgame press comments lambasting the team’s foibles.

Early on, it seems that Casey won’t fall into that same trap, doing his best to foster confidence and trust in his players. It’s a clear desire to give them freedom to play like they did in high school, AAU and beyond, without all the structure and fear of failure.

A better match

Players often looked to the bench when they made mistakes under Van Gundy, wondering whether they’d be pulled out of the game. Casey sees it as part of the growing process — for everyone, from the rookies in the Summer League to the veterans.

“The most important thing is those guys getting reps and making mistakes — they’re going to mistakes. It’s a mistake game,” Casey said Thursday. “What you want to do is try to minimize those mistakes and help the team win. Play through the mistakes and learn from them.”

The choice of Casey as the new coach seems to be an acknowledgment by team owner Tom Gores that the previous regime and the current roster didn’t match up.

In Van Gundy’s four seasons, the Pistons made the playoffs just once and were summarily swept. The next season, in 2016-17, the Pistons had loads of optimism before Jackson’s knee tendinitis derailed their season. Players drooped their heads. Many seemed to be playing out the string of the season, even when Jackson returned for a final stretch.

More: Dwane Casey aims to change culture, mentality of Pistons

Drummond has had a pair of All-Star appearances in his first six seasons and appears to be closing in on his peak years. Having a coach like Casey to nurture Drummond during the next few years could be the boost he needs to be a perennial All-Star — and one of the top centers in the Eastern Conference.

This summer, Drummond has been expanding his game, including adding a 3-pointer to his repertoire and showing better ball-handling ability. He’s posted numerous clips of himself working out on Instagram and after having his deviated septum repaired last year, he’s breathing better and able to play with more energy at the end of games.

Green light

Casey’s other main attribute, player development, could help in ensuring that Drummond continues to develop and expand his skill set. Casey has begun the process of getting to know them — both the good and the bad.

“What we want to do is emphasize what guys can do well,” Casey said. “You’re not going to change guys overnight. The way we want to play; the word green light is what we want to make sure we understand.”

More: Arn Tellem tends to Pistons, nurtures hope for Detroit

The Pistons could have a playground-type style but with the discipline to distinguish between good shots and bad shots. Shot selection was a concern in the past couple years, as the Pistons had to find alternative offensive options without Jackson running the pick-and-roll with Drummond.

The Summer League will only give a glimpse into what the new Casey era will bring, but players already are energized by the faith he has in them.

“I’m excited about the new way we’re going to play — get up and down, push pace, grab a rebound and go, take the open shot. It’s a green light,” Ellenson said. “It’s been good learning it and getting in a rhythm in it playing here will be nice.” 

It's still early, but checking some boxes is a step in the right direction.